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‘How Long Can I Last?’: Despite Layoffs and Underrepresentation In The Tech Industry, Black Tech Workers Remain Resilient

As layoffs in the technology industry have become a reality, Black tech workers, who are already underrepresented, face growing concerns. 

“Being Black in tech, like being Black in America, is an exercise of mental toughness,” LeRon L. Barton wrote in an article for the Harvard Business Review in 2021. “Your mind is constantly wondering, ‘How long can I last?'” And Barton felt this way before the current rash of tech firings. Barton currently works at Insight Global as a network engineer/consultant as well as being a freelance writer.

Photo by Mizuno K:

The State of The Technology Industry

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the technology industry is expected to grow 15 percent between 2021 and 2031. The average salary in 2021 was $97,000, more than 50 percent higher than the median annual wage of $45,760 for other occupations. 

Yet, in 2022 there have been massive layoffs at tech-driven companies, leaving Black tech workers — already underrepresented in the field — at a disadvantage. According to the think tank Brookings Institution, Black Americans currently make up 8 percent of workers in the tech industry.

In early November, Meta laid off an estimated 11,000 jobs — the company’s biggest set of layoffs. Right after taking over Twitter, Elon Musk fired nearly 4,000 employees. That’s not all. Stripe has let go of 1,100 workers, while Lyft has laid off 700 of its employees. And between June and July Coinbase laid off 1,100 employees, and Shopify let go of 1,000 staffers.

While it is uncertain how many of these laid-off employees are Black, the lack of representation within the industry, coupled with rising layoffs, has created a source of anxiety. Needless to say, it does not look promising for recent college graduates looking to begin their careers, nor do prospects look bright for career transitioners. 

Black professionals comprise just 3.7 percent of technical roles at large tech companies despite making up 13 percent of the overall labor force, found a report by The Kapor Center and the NAACP. The report was published earlier this year.

According to Barton, who has been in the tech sector for more than 20 years, the underrepresentation of Blacks in tech has been an issue since the 1970s, when the Bay Area emerged as the start of Silicon Valley. And Blacks who have made strides in tech, Barton says, they face unique challenges.

“You sense it from the stares you receive when you walk through the door, from the looks on people’s faces when they find out you’re competent at your job, from the alienation you feel after not being invited to lunch with your peers, and from the awkwardness they project when they try to engage you in everyday conversation,” he wrote.

He pointed out that he has had white team members perceive him as the “diversity hire.”

“The amount of times we have heard, ‘You are so articulate,’ when answering a question or speaking up at a meeting is mind-blowing,” he wrote.

Look For Opportunities In Unlikely Places 

Despite the current dire employment outlook, industry insiders such as Heather Hatcher, CEO of Black Ambition, believe that there is still room for Black techies to thrive. 

While she said, “I’m terrified about what’s happening right now,” Hatcher claimed there are still opportunities to be had for Black people entering tech.

“Still stay the course. The recession of 2008 did not happen to everyone. It did not happen to every company. … Definitely continue to get the skills, but relationships rule everything,” Hatcher said during AfroTech Conference 2022, which took place Nov. 13-17 at the Austin Convention Center and Hilton Austin in Austin, Texas.

“While there may be a slowness in hiring, it’s not a slowness everywhere,” she added. “You may have to kind of broaden your net of looking for opportunities internationally.”

Hatcher recommends understanding professional value and seeking employment with companies that may not be technology companies but offer tech roles as one of the greatest ways to stay afloat as the economy shifts. 

“Some of these industries are going to weather the storm and be perfectly fine. Then, can you just be a little bit flexible in what you’re doing or what your value is?” Hatcher said. “Getting very clear on your value is the advice that I would give to someone in this moment. Block out what you’re seeing on the news. These big tech companies are going to constantly get the headlines. They hire thousands of people, but there are other companies that are doing just fine and they are hiring in droves right now. My focus would be on those companies and opportunities.”

Barton warns tech newbies.

“If you are Black and you are interested in or currently entering the tech industry, know that it is not going to be easy. You are a minority in a sector that is incredibly slow in addressing race and diversity,” he wrote.

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